8 Times America Scapegoated Asians for Diseases in the Past

By Gaileen Andal

CAST/HIST 260: Asian American History, Spring 2021

The recent rhetoric of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” has led to an increase in anti-Asian sentiment, enabling Americans to scapegoat Asians for the global spread of the pandemic because of how the term associates the virus with Asian ethnicity. This vilification of Asians, especially Chinese, as “unsanitary, disease-spreaders” is, unfortunately, nothing new in US history. In fact, as the following list of events shows, this practice has been in use in the US since the 19th century. Such events help disprove that the recent increase in hatred towards Asian Americans is not a phenomenon that came out of thin air and that it is a much bigger problem deeply rooted in US history. This long-standing practice needs to be discussed more in mainstream media instead of swept under the rug.

1. “Asiatic” Cholera

A report of a cholera case in 1832. Photo credit: thesocialhistorian.com

This particular spread of cholera thrived throughout the 19th century and was believed to have originated from India. The spread was particularly facilitated by British Indian traders, quickly turning into a more global pandemic with the various trade routes and travelers. Having been already present for a good amount of time in the US, it became one of the many diseases Chinese immigrants were scapegoated for at the late end of the century, especially when many white Americans found themselves facing labor shortages following the California Gold Rush. Some places like San Francisco responded to public pressures by passing resolutions, one being where all subjects from ships arriving from China were subject to personal examinations performed by quarantine officers. (In later years, with more pressure coming from outbreaks of other diseases, the San Francisco Board of Health would add onto this resolution by stating that only Asiatics were subject to detention; it would also become one of the many factors that solidified the US’ passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, effectively banning immigration of most “infectious” Chinese.)

2. Bubonic Plague at San Francisco

On March 6, 1900, a body of a Chinese man, Chick Gin, was found in the basement of a hotel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Gin was believed to have died of the bubonic plague. In response, the city put Chinatown under quarantine, ordering specifically whites to leave the area, and inoculated Chinese residents. Guards were placed at each of the city’s exits to check for plague symptoms on any Chinese person leaving town. Houses were also disinfected “‘except those inhabited by the wealthy and usually clean Chinese’”.

The San Francisco Call’s article on the plague situation at SF Chinatown. June 1, 1900. Photo credit: California State Library

3. Bubonic Plague at Honolulu

Honolulu was another city that came under crisis of a bubonic outbreak in the early 20th century. Quarantines were issued in response and, once the number of cases died down, ceased. But later when two victims of the bubonic plague were reported in Honolulu’s Chinatown, officials immediately, without issuance of a quarantine, called to move the 4500 Chinese and Japanese residents living there to a quarantine camp and burned “infected” houses, effectively destroying all of the residents’ livelihoods.

Honolulu’s Chinatown burned down to “control” the disease. 1900. Photo credit: Hawaii State Archives

4. Syphilis

In the late 1800s, Chinese female prostitutes were seen as threats to the US’ moral and social order. As outcasts to the homogenized society especially with their occupation, they were easy scapegoats for white male clients who fell ill to syphilis despite how globally rampant the venereal disease was at the time. Chinese male servants were also suspected of infecting the households and families they were to care for. Taking on what was considered “women’s work”, Chinese men as servants called to speculate their intentions. Publications warned mothers of how these houseboys “reeked” with syphilis and could transmit it to their babies during nursing or that they might molest their children.

New York City’s Chinatown in 1900. Photo credit: Library of Congress LC-D4–13646

5. Leprosy

A cartoon from The Wasp. May 26, 1882. Photo credit: foundsf.org

From 1871 to 1876, the rising pace of Chinese people with leprosy being detained in San Francisco’s Smallpox Hospital added to the hysteria over the disease. Amidst the hysteria, a medical theory arose claiming that leprosy was innately attributed to the Chinese race and that Chinese lepers had to be isolated from even lepers of other races. Smallpox Hospital attempted to resolve this by segregating patients by disease and race, creating one shack for “white lepers” and another for “Chinese lepers”. However, political pressure continued to mount and in August 1876, the San Francisco Board of Health deported dozens of Chinese lepers to Hong Kong.

6. Smallpox

Street funerals became commonplace in Chinatown due to the smallpox epidemic. Photo credit: Joan B. Trauner

San Francisco in the 1870s was also dealing with an outbreak of smallpox. The city health officer, J. L. Meares, ordered for every house in Chinatown to be fumigated. Unsurprisingly, the number of reported cases and deaths continued to increase within a year of this process considering these presumptuous attempts to contain the disease within Chinatown did not address all of the other smallpox cases outside of the area. Despite this, Meares still generated public blame towards the “subterranean” and allegedly unsanitary bachelor societies and went on to say:

“I unhesitatingly declare my belief that the cause is the presence in our midst of 30,000 (as a class) of unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen, who have disregarded our sanitary laws, concealed and are concealing their cases of smallpox.”

7. Tuberculosis

Chinatown in San Francisco in the 1930s. Photo credit: paper-dragon.com

During 1939–1941, more than 181,288 people died from tuberculosis in the US. The census numbers found that the number of black deaths tripled the number of white deaths while “Indians, Chinese and other races” doubled that. In response, San Francisco city officials focused blame on the living conditions in immigrant Chinatowns yet again. The overcrowded conditions were certainly a factor in facilitating the spread of TB, but it is also important to note that the city’s Board of Health had not provided public health facilities within their Chinatown for TB diagnosis and treatment until 1933, when TB had already existed for nearly 50 years at this point.

8. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

Two people wearing masks on a street in Hong Kong. May 2, 2003. Photo credit: Lo Sai Hung, AP

First reported in China in 2003, SARS cases in other countries were already being recorded a month after the initial report. Much of western media followed the outbreak as a foreign threat to homeland borders, associating Asian culture, Asian spaces, and Asian bodies with the disease. In SARS and New York’s Chinatown: The Politics of Risk and Blame During an Epidemic of Fear by Lara Eichelberger, Eichelberger interviewed a local of New York City’s Chinatown who recalled:

Suddenly, no one came out to Chinatown. It was just recovering after the crash in tourism from 9/11, and then SARS hit and the tourism industry crashed again. In the news, the images of Asians in facemasks made people want to avoid Chinatown. It was really noticeable on the trains: if there was an Asian coughing on a train, people would look at them nasty, and move away

Unfortunately, the pinpointing of such diseases on identities differing from the majority is still very much a common practice today, especially with COVID-19. These attempts to blame the “other” in order to give some sort of reassurance to the mainstream public fail to actually contain diseases and only end up harming an even bigger number of people. With COVID-19 lockdowns and procedures seemingly coming towards an end as more vaccinations are executed, we must not forget how people were able to take advantage of this crisis and enable the use of racially-targeted words like the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus” as well as other inexcusable behaviors. It is important that we keep talking about such events if we do not want history to repeat itself.

I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment. — GA


Bhaman, Salonee, Rachel Kuo, Matilda Sabal, Vivian Shaw, and Tiffany Diane Tso. “Care in the Time of Coronavirus.” Asian American Feminist Antibodies, March 2020.

Eichelberger, Laura. “SARS and New York’s Chinatown: The Politics of Risk and Blame during an Epidemic of Fear.” Social Science and Medicine 65, no. 6 (September 2007): 1284–95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.04.022.

Infante, Sergio. “‘Asiatic Cholera’: Disease Names Revealed Colonial India’s Racism.” Business Standard, August 4, 2020.

Lee, Shelley Sang-Hee. A New History of Asian America. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Shah, Nayan. “Perversity, Contamination, and the Dangers of Queer Domesticity.” In Contagious Divides, 77–104. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2001.

Trauner, Joan B. “The Chinese as Medical Scapegoats in San Francisco, 1870–1905.” California History 57, no. 1 (1978): 70–87. https://doi.org/10.2307/25157817.



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.